NZ Day 24: Tongariro Crossing!

Up at the crack of dawn with our backpacks and snacks! The weather was looking ominous but the shuttle driver claimed it would clear up and get warmer later in the day, so we boarded the shuttle with a handful of other explorers.

When we unloaded at the base of the trail, we immediately met a park ranger. Her purpose was to quickly examine the people starting the hike, and stop the ones that looked like they weren’t prepared well enough, and sternly warn them to turn around and leave. She was not as optimistic about the weather as our shuttle driver had been, and her information was more up-to-date.

“With wind chill, the temperature up there will drop below freezing,” she said. “And the wind will be blowing all the time.”

A few people turned around. Plenty of other people hurried by, as if they were trying to sneak past the ranger without being noticed — as if they were sneaking past a bouncer to get into an exclusive club. I spotted a young couple dressed in shorts, the boy charging up the trail with selfish bravado carrying only a water bottle, and the girl trailing nervously behind him with a fanny pack. She threw a glance back at the ranger but clearly didn’t have the guts to stop her boyfriend from making them both miserable.

And they surely would be miserable. Hours later Kerry and I would pass by clusters of people hunched behind rocks, their exposed skin turned purple, trying to decide what to do now that they were miles from civilization and anything warm.

We didn’t want to interfere with the ranger’s work, so we chatted with her just long enough to get news about the weather. Then we stepped onto the causeway and began the hike!

The causeway zigzagged to the east over alpine tundra, across tiny slow-moving streams and clusters of fragile-looking succulents and grass.

What manner of plant is this??

Most of the rocks were rough and porous, and they quickly became boulders as we went along.

As the route got steeper, Kerry and I remembered all our conversations with the locals about roads and bicycling and hiking trails. We decided that New Zealanders were so used to going up and down hills that they eventually stopped noticing them, and only remembered that a given route involved climbing when it went straight up an actual mountain. A while back we asked one of them to describe the Tongariro Crossing and he actually used the words, “It’s flat all the way up.”

Flat all the way up. That’s some serious “ancient Greek philosopher” logic, there.

While pondering the terrain’s obvious non-flatness, we posed for a couple of dramatic photos with Mt Ngauruhoe – a.k.a. Mt Doom – in the background.

The trail continued towards the left-hand flank of the mountain, and soon the stairs began.

At first it was little sections of stairs, a dozen steps at a time, and then we reached a rest area with some pit toilets and beheld one extremely long staircase that went lurching up the shoulder of Mt Ngauruhoe towards an unseen plateau to the north. Small groups of people were standing around trying to reach consensus over whether to continue, or turn back. Other people were just hunkered down eating snacks.

It was interesting to see how people dealt with the extreme weather. By this point most of the people with inadequate gear had been filtered out. We spotted a trio of older ladies who looked like they were in their late 60’s, each carrying a heavy pack. They had thick clothing but it was too porous to block the intense wind, so they compensated by moving quickly. I was more the plodding, cautious type, and spent a lot of time standing aside so other people could pass by without breaking their pace. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t nearly as in-shape as I imagined.

The trail split, offering a partial route up the side of Mt. Ngauruhoe for the especially brave, but Kerry and I skipped it. A while later we met up with a group who made the climb, and they expressed disappointment that the peak was drowned in mist when they reached the top.

We followed the trail straight ahead, across a wide, flat plateau. The wind was still bitterly cold. Ahead of us we could see a hillside scattered with the bright dots of people in hiking gear, zig-zagging up to the top of a ridge, then following the ridge to a peak way up on the left.

Here’s a line showing the route:

Once we got up on the ridge we took a few shots looking back:

We climbed, then rested for a while in the shelter of some boulders on the ridge. Anyone around us who wasn’t resting out of the wind was getting more tired instead of less, and we heard plenty of tense muttering around us as clusters of people tried to decide whether to turn back. It was safe to assume that almost every one of the hundreds of hikers around us was doing this hike for the first time – like us – and wasn’t completely sure how much rough terrain lay ahead. (In retrospect, we were about a third of the way along the crossing.)

The trail got narrower and more hazardous. Cables were attached to the rock wall in some places, and we used them gratefully.

When we followed the ridge all the way to the top, we could see the Emerald Lakes down the other side, to the north. The trail also split off to the west, and to the east we could look down into a steep crater — the remains of a huge volcanic explosion.

We were standing on the top of Mount Tongariro – or at least, the highest remaining peak of it, after the top was blasted off long ago. The Tongariro crossing is actually named after this mountain, and the volcanic complex surrounding it. Even the much taller Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) behind us – is technically just a vent of the Tongariro complex.

Even before the view, the first thing we noticed was the wind. It was up to 40 miles per hour, and it blasted us continuously from the north. We had to be careful to lean in that direction no matter which way we were actually walking.

Whoooooooooooooooooooosssssh goes the wind!

In the distance we could see the shimmering, chilly surface of Blue Lake. What a view!

Some hikers were taking the more ambitious western trail, which continued along the top of the ridge and bent around to the south, eventually returning them to the brutal staircase and the shuttle station. We followed the majority, stomping and slipping our way down the loose rock towards the Emerald Lakes.

This descent was tricky. Kerry couldn’t go four steps without slipping, and some other people were slipping and falling constantly, dropping their butts and hands into the soil. It looked painful. I went down the way I would on the chalk hills near my childhood home: Turned sideways, planting my heels very heavily to dig in each step. I didn’t fall over but I got a huge pile of gravel in my shoes!

The lakes grew more enchanting as we approached them. Soon we could see their strange coloring and watch the mist percolating and oozing out from the hills around them.

We went right down to the shore, then sat around resting and drinking the water we brought with us. I gobbled a bunch of snacks from my backpack. Kerry discovered that there was exactly one boulder in the whole area large enough to provide cover to pee behind, and when she went around it she found wads of toilet paper everywhere. Eeeew.

A fellow hiker snapped this nice photo, just before we set out again:

Fortified by the rest, we made good time across the plateau to the north, and then climbed another hill to arrive at the edge of Blue Lake. It was gorgeous; the kind of rugged-looking primeval terrain that an artist might put on the cover of a fantasy novel to grab the reader’s eye.

We took the opportunity to make silly poses in front of it. Kerry’s fantasy novel is called “Space-Queen Of The Freezing Teapots.” Mine is called “I Can’t Believe How Silly Kerry Is.”

Kerry: "I'm a little teapot ... COLD and stout!"

Kerry was making a really ridiculous face just before she snapped this one!

I couldn’t help asking myself, why would this terrain be so inspiring? As I walked along I came up with a pretty good theory: It inspires dramatic tension because it’s exposed. Unlike a dense forest or the crowded streets of a city, this terrain is composed only of things that are gigantic – the lake, the ridge, the sky – and things that are tiny. Anything medium-sized that you construct in it, or send wandering through it, can only look fragile and insignificant by comparison. … Or it will be so far away that you won’t see it at all.

So either you’re lost, or you’re totally exposed and vulnerable. Quite a setting for drama! There isn’t even a single bush growing around the shore of the lake that you could hide behind. About the only way you could surprise someone would be to bury yourself in rocks and wait until they wander past you on the trail. (I bet some treacherous bandits in Mongolia have done just that!)

Eventually we passed around the side of a hill, losing sight of Blue Lake, and discovered one good hiding place:

… So we took another pee break and ate snacks there. The wind was not as bitterly cold as before, but still cold.

This is how we keep warm in 35mph winds!

Eventually we passed around to the north face of the Tongariro complex. From this point the trail only went downward. It felt like we were more than two thirds done with the crossing, but for the sheer distance we had to walk, it was closer to halfway.

We were treated to another lovely panorama, this one quite different from the last. We could see Lake Taupo in the far distance.

The track below looked easy enough to walk, and we thought we were right on schedule to make it to the shuttle stop at the end by 5:00pm. We didn’t reckon that most of the remaining path was hidden in the forest beyond.

We'll be walking every inch of that track to get down ... and then a bunch more that's hidden in the trees below.

Along the way we saw some more geothermal activity, and a sign sternly warning us to keep our distance.

After an eternity of foot-numbing descent, we arrived at the Ketetahi cabin, a structure that used to offer overnight stays and cooking equipment to hikers before it was damaged in the 2012 volcanic eruption.

In 2012 an explosion shot thousands of rocks high into the air, and one of them came down right through the roof of the cabin and smashed one of the bunk beds. Thankfully, it was not occupied at the time!

Now the cabin is only good for temporary shelter and bathroom breaks, while the forestry service decides what to do with it. The current proposition is fix up the cabin but seal off the damaged room – including a plastic plate over the hole – and turn it into an exhibit showing the power and unpredictability of the volcano.

We got a good look at the bas-relief map on the table and saw that yes, now we were more than 2/3 of the way. Sheesh!

We walked as fast as we could, very conscious of the time. The trail finally leveled out and the forest closed around us. Soon we passed this sign:

Okay; can anyone tell me what a lahar is? Ah. The USGS website has answered my question. It's an "Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys."

So what in the world is a “lahar”?

The USGS website has an answer: It’s an “Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys.”

Basically a flash-flood of cement that comes roaring down out of the mountains without warning and half-drowns, half-bulldozes everything in its way. Terrifying!

At this point we were almost jogging, trying to make the 5:00pm pickup. For the last half-hour we did jog, when our sore feet would allow us to. I still paused to snap a few pictures of the amazing foliage around us — I couldn’t help it!

Those leaves do not belong to the tree - they are actually yet another parasitic organism. New Zealand is crazy.

Whoah. I don't think I've ever seen such a huge specimen of this type of lichen anywhere before... ( )

The shuttle driver waited a few minutes after we arrived, since there was one more group behind us on the trail that hadn’t appeared yet. If we’d known that the driver would wait past pickup time, we wouldn’t have taxed ourselves so much on the last few miles. Oh well.

Back at the hotel we exploded our luggage and took the longest showers ever. Then we rode to the restaurant for a huge dinner:


The banners in a restaurant. We just did these! HAH!

We checked the weather for tomorrow, and the transportation out of National Park, and decided to do one last day of cross-country riding, all downhill to Taumurunui!

NZ Day 23: A much needed day off

When we got back from the canoe trip we had to make some hard scheduling decisions. We had only six days left before our flight in New Plymouth.

According to the original itinerary, we should have already done the Tongariro Crossing, giving us plenty of time to cycle towards Egmont National Park, and check out the Goblin Forest hiking trail. But now we had to choose between the two: Tongariro Crossing, or Goblin Forest?

We were absolutely exhausted, and we really wanted to spend a day resting instead of traveling. Also, the hotel offered a shuttle ride directly to and from the Tongariro Crossing trailheads. I poked around and discovered a bus connection from Taumarunui to New Plymouth, and that gave us a pretty good plan: Rest up today, do the crossing tomorrow, and then cycle downhill out of National Park towards Taumarunui the next day. The ride would be nothing but easy downhill, so we wouldn’t be taxing ourselves for two days in a row.

With the decision made, we booked another day at the hotel, then rode out and stuffed ourselves silly at the restaurant.

While eating I saw this in the newspaper rack:

This was in the paper the day after we got back. Whew, close one!

Looks like we finished our river trip just in time! Now here’s hoping the weather stays clear for the next day, while we’re doing the Tongariro Crossing…

It’s funny… I think if we’d only spent a week or a few days in New Zealand we wouldn’t have seen enough to realize how much we missed. But a month is enough to see and try many things, and pick up ideas for many more along the way… We skipped the dolphin encounter, White Island, skydiving, Sanctuary Mountain, Frying Pan Lake, various caves, and all the museums along the way so far…

We could always see more on a second trip, but if we do come back, it will be to cross the south island. Oh well. Life is too short!

Inside the paper I found this editorial:

1080 is a poison that is formed into large pellets and dropped into the forest by helicopter. First they make a "feeder batch" of pellets that contains no poison and drop it into the woods, to get the critters used to eating it. Then they drop a load of 1080. The idea is to kill possums and other mammal pests that are terrorizing the native birds, without the invasive process of setting traps. There are concerns about the poison creeping into waterways, about other animals dying from eating contaminated corpses, and about kiwi birds eating them directly and dying. What I like about this editorial is that it claims the people opposed to 1080 are an illogical "brigade", and then fails to present even a single referenced fact as counterpoint - just a lot of angry bluster. Good job, Richard Steele. Not.

1080 is a poison that is formed into large pellets and dropped into the forest by helicopter.

First they make a “feeder batch” of pellets that contains no poison and drop that into the woods, to get the critters used to eating it. Then they drop a load of 1080.

The idea is to kill possums and other mammal pests that are terrorizing the native birds, without the invasive process of setting traps. There are concerns about the poison creeping into waterways, about other animals dying from eating contaminated corpses, and about kiwi birds eating them directly and dying.

What I like about this editorial is that it claims the people opposed to 1080 are an illogical “brigade”, and then fails to present even a single referenced fact as counterpoint – just a lot of angry bluster.

Good job, Richard Steele! Not.

Where do I stand on this issue as a tourist? Am I even allowed to take a position, given the contradictory nature of my presence here? I was drawn to New Zealand in part by the native wildlife, but by tromping around I contribute to its degradation. I guess I’m on the side of the 1080 users – it seems to be better than doing nothing – but poisons are always nasty things and I sympathize with those who are alarmed to find trace amounts of it showing up in unexpected places.

NZ Day 22: I Can’t Believe We Made It. Canoe?

Ahh, another fine morning on the Whanganui!

After spending a while mopping up the unexpected puddle in the kitchen, Francis made a huge stack of gluten free pancakes. We all gathered around the kitchen table and ate heartily. We weren’t well-rested, but at least we were well-fed!

I had a little time to wander and snap photos, then we hauled gear down the steps to the riverbank. We were the last group out of the campsite again – perhaps because most of the campers ate a cold breakfast, or none.

We had lots of flat rowing, and then an incredibly windy area on top of the flat where we were blown upstream if we didn’t row. We had to row hard, then take breaks in the lee of the rocks on the riverbank, or just drift into the shallow water and plant an oar in the muck. Good thing we had plenty of practice!

We were grateful for every rest break!

And, of course, we enjoyed the lush environment, even in our zombified state. Here’s a video of the walk down from the break area back to the boats:

And another video much farther down the river, when it widened out considerably:

We also hit some awesome rapids – three long ones – and rowed like hell through all of them.

Just after the last one, we saw the boat ramp ahead of us, with the transport van already parked on the connecting road. Houses were scattered across the hillside, complete with power lines and driveways. We were back in the real world. Boo! We drifted over to the ramp and stumbled out, grinning and stretching and yawning, and talked excitedly about the experience.

“Super awesome,” I said. “I only wish it was longer, so we could use our skills now that we’ve developed them. I think it took an entire day for me to learn how to steer the boat without slowing it down.”

“Yeah,” Kerry said, “and the rapids were really stressful at first. It got a lot better when we learned how to communicate.”

I nodded vigorously. “For sure. There were some pretty tense moments. And we couldn’t really pull the canoe over and talk. Most of the time there was no place to pull over!”

Kerry turned to Francis, who was trying ropes down over the trailer. “Do a lot of couples get into arguments in the canoes?”

“Yeah, uh…” He looked across at his manager, standing by the door to the van. “We sometimes call them ‘divorce boats’.”

We laughed pretty hard at that.

The shuttle driver plowed along the steep gravelly roads with obvious impatience, forcing us to grip our seatbelts to avoid smacking into each other, but we still managed to pass around phones and cameras and show off pictures gathered from the trip. Sebastian and I exchanged contact information so we could trade photos later. We also devoured the few remaining snacks from the dry barrels, though I ate lightly to keep my stomach from rebelling. Looking back, Kerry and I agreed that this was the highlight of the trip so far, eclipsing even Hobbiton and the Waiotapu thermal park. New Zealand just keeps impressing us!

Back in National Park, we collected our bicycles from the garage and found that some critters has been investigating them:

Cat prints all over the recumbent seat after storing it in the Adrift NZ garage during the canoe trip!

Then we changed our hotel reservation to a different room, since the smaller one was tiny and had shared bathrooms. Dragged our gear inside and exploded it all over the floors and couches, then did a bunch of laundry, showered, and rode over to the restaurant where we stuffed ourselves.

Good thing we have a day off tomorrow! We would totally fail the Tongariro Crossing in our current state…

NZ Day 21: How Far Canoe Go?

We got up early – no point in trying to sleep longer – and helped Francis get the gear packed and loaded. Then we lingered over breakfast, so our group was among the last to leave. Kerry and I were moving slowly, fighting sleep deprivation.

I couldn’t help wandering around with the camera a bit before we took to the river. Every square foot of land was a cauldron, a wrestling ring, a fireworks show of plant life. Trees and moss and parasitic vines, roots and shoots, fighting tooth and nail. I imagined that if I could see this terrain in fast-forward, with each hour compressed into a second, it would be literally writhing – and if I stood still, watching it that way, I would soon be covered in branches and sucked into the ground.

Shoooop! I think it would make a sound like crinkling paper, and in the last moments, it would be quite painful. Hungry plants…

Some of these plants – like the ones pictured above – grow up and through the trees, eventually climbing over and smothering them.

Others – like the ones pictured below – start as drifting seeds, landing on the tops of trees and taking root directly in the bark, going through an entire life cycle without actually reaching the ground.

That’s the sort of strategy you can evolve when you’re a plant in a forest that’s been extremely dense for eons, with no grazing animals to thin it out and shift the advantage towards grass.

And then there’s the lichen:

This reminds me of the lichen I see back home on the oak trees. Wikipedia: "Lichen is a composite organism that emerges from algae or cyanobacteria (or both) living among filaments of a fungus in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship."

Lichen is a composite organism, made from algae or cyanobacteria – or both – living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. Believe it or not, lichen is not actually parasitic, like the plants I described earlier. Lichens don’t put roots down into the trees they perch on, they just anchor to the surface, using them to gain altitude and better access to sunlight for photosynthesis, as well as better access to minerals filtering down in mist or rainwater, from decay happening downwind or farther up in the tree.

The most fascinating thing about lichens, from my point of view, is that they behave like a single organism but they do not actually have any traceable genetic lineage, because the bacteria and fungus that compose them can intermix with other bacteria and fungus on their own terms. So, every lichen everywhere is a hybrid.

Anyway, enough poking around. Time to get back on the river! Here’s a little video of Francis, Katerina, and Sebastian, rowing along.

We went through lots of little rapids today. They were fun, but Kerry and I were both very tired and had trouble communicating our intentions with the oars. I was seated in back, so it was my job to steer, but I also needed to tell Kerry which side to row on and how intensely to row, based on a strategy for passing through each of the rapids. Sometimes I couldn’t come up with a strategy in time so I didn’t know what to tell her. Other times she disagreed with my idea and rowed whichever way made sense to her, trying to steer us from the front. We had a few tense silences, until eventually we worked out a pattern: I would warn her far in advance what the plan was, and give her a number between 1 and 5 for how intensely to row.

“Okay, right side for this one. We’re gonna aim straight for the middle of that wave, then pitch out to the left. Gimme a 2 to start with…”

After sailing through a particularly devious sequence of rocks, waves, and upwellings, Francis drifted up to us and said, “hey, good job working that out. That’s one of the biggest rapids on this part of the river, and most people just stop rowing halfway through it because it’s like being on a bucking bronco. You guys kept rowing the whole way through. I’m impressed!”

Kerry and I felt a little better about our skills after that!

At the next rest stop we had more chocolate, cheese, fruit, veggies, and sandwiches. Kerry flopped down onto the shore and barely moved. I wandered up and down our little elbow of land, trying to get some heat into my feet, which had been cold ever since we stepped in the river to launch the canoes in the morning.

We saw a big jet-boat go roaring up the river, stirring up long rows of waves that slapped against the cliffs. I was surprised the Department Of Conservation allowed it, but Francis explained that the boat was essential for rescue operations and moving large amounts of gear.

“Many years ago, there were a lot more boats on this river, including a steam-based paddleboat service that ran for 70 years,” he said. “We’ll be passing one of the old mooring stations tomorrow and I’ll point it out.”

“Why did the service stop?” I asked.

“Well, eventually the railroad extended to the southern coast, and the ferry service got out-competed. So they decommissioned the ferry boat, and it sat parked on the river for years getting older and older until it just sank.”

“And that was it? No more boats?”

“Oh no, plenty of boats still. Just not that big. For a while there were lumber companies moving cargo on the river. Then there were raft races, and jet boat races, but those stopped in the 1980’s. Then about 15 years ago, some people got together with some money and raised the original riverboat up, restored it so it looks great again, and started up a little bit of the original ferry service as a tourist attraction.”

“Wow! Pretty cool!”

“Yeah. And couple years ago, another riverboat service started with a newer, smaller boat, and you can take rides on that too, pretty far up the river. But personally, I think canoeing is a much better way to go. Of course.”

“Of course!”

We loaded into the canoes and paddled for another couple hours, moving through easy rapids, chatting with each other, staring curiously into the shadowy channels that snaked into the cliffs on either side, and having a good time. I promised myself I would come back with a kayak at some point, and explore some of those channels — but there’s so much more to explore I doubt I’ll keep that promise.

Eventually we zig-zagged into a tributary of the river, and tied the canoes up near a trail that was the side-entrance to the “Bridge To Nowhere” hiking area. The ascent was treacherous and muddy, and we had to cling to knotted ropes for some of it. Whoo!

As we walked the main trail, Francis told us about how the earlier settlers managed to drive cattle here, trying to get their ill-fated farming claims established. They played “sideways rugby” on the hills for entertainment, since it was impossible to find flat ground for a field.

Here’s a hyperspeed video of some of the trail we walked:

Pretty twisty, huh?

And all this walking, sandwiched in the middle of a full day of rowing, after two days of poor sleep! We’re pretty tough!

Sebastian crossing the bouncy bridge.

Eventually we emerged on the side of a steep ravine, with a tributary of the river at the bottom.

Then we crossed a small bouncy rope-and-chain bridge, and came upon the object of our quest: The “Bridge To Nowhere”.

We hung out there for a while, enjoying the weirdness of a solid, modern-looking bridge in the middle of a dense forest along a dirt hiking trail.

For a little while it looked like my shirt was a bumblebee magnet.

A nearby sign told us some history:

An opportunity to nowhere. It looks as ominous as it sounds: A huge expanse of near-trackless forest that has completely swallowed all evidence of attempted farming, except for the bridge, which was obscured by dirt and vines when explorers found it years later.

“An opportunity to nowhere!” It looks as ominous as it sounds. We were standing in a huge expanse of near-trackless forest that had completely swallowed all evidence of the attempted farming from decades ago, except for some broken-down farming machinery and the bridge, which was obscured by dirt and vines and missing its railings and most of its top surface when explorers found it years later.

Eventually we turned back towards the boats. First we crossed back over that bouncy rope-and-chain bridge:

“It’s like a free bouncy house, but over a cliff!” Kerry said. “Or is it a ravine? Or a gorge? Or a canyon?”

That prompted a long discussion while we attempted to define each of the words. Our usual solution – look it up on the internet – didn’t work because we were a long way from any internet service. So we just walked and talked, while the forest buzzed and chirped around us.

I posed Kerry beneath a fancy-looking tree:

We got so engrossed in walking and talking that we missed the turnoff for our canoes, and had to walk back up the trail quite a ways to find it.

Back in the water, we paddled along. My feet were wet from launching the boats – again – and this time I got attacked by a horde of sand flies. Aaagh! I had to pause in my steering to slap angrily at them, but I only squished maybe five out of a hundred of the little bastards. I ended up with specks of my own blood all over my feet.

Francis, meanwhile, had his feet bare the entire time, and the flies didn’t even notice him. Just another example of his Super Outdoorsman Powers.

In a little while we arrived at the second cabin site. We beached the canoes and hauled everything up the hill, and Francis set about making another fine meal in the common area kitchen:

Then Sebastian, Kerry, and I went stalking about with our fancy cameras. Of course!

We said hello to the other tourists, and chatted with a few of them. They ran the spectrum from friendly and energetic to exhausted and surly.

Tamzen and her boyfriend whose name we've forgotten!

Here are two of the super-friendly ones! Sorry, I can’t remember their names…

The sunset made for some gorgeous backlit shots of the foliage.

The view across the river near sunset, at the campsite. If it looks a bit like farmland gone to seed, that's because it is. The owners have switched to tourism, and opened a lodge on their property with access to the river.

This is the view across the river near sunset, at the campsite. If it looks a bit like farmland gone to seed, that’s because it is. The owners have switched to tourism, and opened a lodge on their property with access to the river.

Eventually I walked back inside to check on Francis. He was almost done cooking! Near the kitchen area I discovered a wood-burning stove, and with permission I set about building a fire. Sebastian rigged up a drying pole across the front of the stove using an old broom, and we all hung our wet socks along it.

Aah the comforts of civilization!

Happy campers, enjoying dessert provided by Francis!

Here are the happy campers, enjoying dessert provided by Francis: A merengue with condensed heavy cream, traditionally eaten with kiwi fruit or peaches. Can’t beat that classic combination of sugar and fat! Kerry made me some hot cocoa, too.

We stayed up late talking about travel ideas and making jokes, until someone came in from the tent area and told us we were keeping everyone awake. Sebastian and Katerina decided to sleep outside and Francis offered them his tent, which he wasn’t using since he planned to sleep in the kitchen area. The stove had warmed it up nicely. Kerry and I went back to the bunk room, and crawled into our borrowed sleeping bags.

Unfortunately, shortly after Sebastian and Katerina settled in, their tent filled up with bugs, driving them inside with Francis. Then, as the hours passed, the sink slowly overflowed because someone had left the plug in it. Francis woke up in the morning with his blankets soaking wet — and somehow, he was still cheerful!

NZ Day 20: Canoe Believe How Awesome This Is?

We didn’t sleep well – perhaps we took too many naps the previous day – but we didn’t want to miss our adventure, so we dragged ourselves onto our bikes and rode to the Adrift Outdoors depot and transferred our gear to the dry barrels. The manager said we could park our bikes in her garage while we were on the river, and she led us around to her house which was a few blocks away.

With that taken care of, we climbed into the van and began a long bumpy ride down to the put-in point on a tributary of the Whanganui river. My stomach felt a bit floppy from the twists and turns, but that didn’t stop us from chatting along the way with our river guide, an even-tempered and experienced young man named Francis. We also got to know the people who would be piloting the other canoe in our group, a friendly young german couple named Sebastian and Katerina. Five travelers total, in three canoes.

Getting ready to launch!

Down at the river, we watched as the touring company ahead of us slowly unloaded their boats and launched them one at a time. Francis offered to assist but was turned down. One unlucky pair of men immediately capsized their canoe on a rock before they even made it around the corner. We all clapped and yelled “hooray!” at their misadventure, as they pushed their canoe upright and gathered their oars.

Francis wisely decided that we would put in our boats farther downstream from the evil-looking rock, and as soon as the other company cleared out we launched without incident.

Ready to launch!

Francis gave us a few quick lessons on steering and rowing as we drifted in the calm, wide area of the tributary. I was glad that he chose to do this, rather than lining us up along the shore and delivering a long, warning-heavy lecture, like the other company did. It was easier for us to learn in the water, with Francis giving us live feedback to adjust our grip and movements. In retrospect I think the other company didn’t do this because they were used to bringing over a dozen people along, all at once, and didn’t have the manpower to give them personal attention on the river – so they did a drill-sergeant routine beforehand. I’m grateful I chose a company with a more intimate attitude – though I did so by accident. I never saw anything online that reported the ratios between guides and clients, or even explained why it was important.

It only took a few minutes of floundering before we could steer and row in tandem, and then we pushed out into the main river.

The artist at work! What a dork!!

Holy cow. The terrain was amazing. Like nothing we’d ever seen in person. As soon as I had a break in my steering duties, I hauled the phone out of my dry sack.


The river was wide and steady, giving us plenty of time and space to maneuver, which was important because we spent at least half our time staring in awe at the high canyon walls, which were thick with hanging vines, moss, ferns, protruding rocks dripping columns of water, and a maelstrom of branches and roots from uncountable trees fighting for access to the sun.


I could not have imagined a place so verdant, with air smelling so fresh, and the sound of insects and birds so intense. Sometimes the chirping of insects seemed to drown out the river itself.


It was not easy tearing our eyes away, but we did have to pay some attention to the river. Francis guided us around and through the rapids, giving directions and then leading with his canoe, which was loaded down with most of our food and equipment. Along the way he kept up a narrative, mixing local legends with facts and figures about the river and the plants and animals along it, drawing from biology and geology, a bit of geography, and recent conservation efforts.

Partway through the day we drifted ashore and took a lunch break. Francis unpacked one of the dry barrels and handed out fresh vegetables and cheese, suited for someone with a wheat intolerance like me, and made sandwiches. I nibbled some chocolate from my own stash and ran around snapping pictures – and cursed myself for not bringing along the Garmin Virb, which was back in the garage with my bike. The river ride would have made some excellent fast-motion videos.

“If I do this again,” I thought, “I’m bringing along a portable drone!”

Yeah I’m a bit of a gadget freak.

Francis is living the dream, and it shows. He's an enthusiastic, cheerful, knowledgeable, polite, and dedicated guide to the outdoors.

Here’s a shot of our intrepid guide, Francis. He is living the dream, and it shows. He’s an enthusiastic, cheerful, knowledgeable, polite, and dedicated guide to the outdoors.

Eventually we arrived at the first cabin stop, and pulled our canoes ashore. Here’s Katerina, stretching after being seated for three straight hours.

Here’s Sebastian, enthusiastically hauling one of our coolers up the long slope to the cabins. Just how long was that slope? Here’s a video!

A long trek, but worth it. Because we were big spenders, we all got our own benches inside the cabin. Most of the travelers had to bring their own gear and set it up in the camping area.

The cabin, or to be more accurate the John Coull Hut, was bustling with tour guides and helpful guests, unpacking and cooking food. Kerry and I rested and chatted for a while, then joined the crowd inside to help Francis get dinner ready.

This map was posted on the cabin wall. It explains the local efforts to reduce the number of possums, stoats, and rats in the preserve, all of which are unwelcome invasive species brought to New Zealand by man.

On a more practical note…

Heaps of them. Like, you don’t even know.

That’s why the cabin is surrounded by traps, like this one.

The camp water supply. Usually you can just drink this straight, but while we were there it required boiling.

The invasive mammals also smuggle diseases along. This season the camp water supply was determined to be “suspect”, so it needed boiling to be drinkable. In better years you can just drink it right out of the bucket.

Glow worms along the trail!

After dinner Kerry and I went exploring with our cameras, and we found some glow worms right alongside the footbridge to the cabin. Awesome! I didn’t have my focus-assist lamp, but Kerry’s camera had one built in. On the other hand, her image sensor didn’t seem to be as accurate. After a bunch of fiddling with manual controls and propping the camera on a stick, I got a pretty good photo.

The night sky on the river.

There were a zillion stars out too, of course. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a place with less light pollution than the middle of this preserve…

Kerry and I were completely exhausted from all the rowing, and the sights and sounds and the sleep deficit from the previous night, so we fell asleep quickly. Unfortunately the bunks in the cabin were rather stiff and cramped, and the air was stagnant, which made for a difficult night. Such is the price of adventure!